Cambodian Workers are Living in Servitude in South Korea

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Cambodian Workers are Living in Servitude in South Korea

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[Reportage] Cambodian workers spend lives of indentured servitude on Korean farms
Posted on : Jan.25,2020 19:23 KST
When I got to the greenhouse on the evening of Dec. 12, Peukka and seven other Cambodians were crouched down, picking lettuce. They were all wearing hats, with handkerchiefs wrapped around them, dirt-stained padded jackets, and track pants, as if it was their dress code. The eight Cambodians had 80 greenhouses, which measured 10m wide and 100-150m long, in their care, with each worker responsible for 10 greenhouses.

Cucumbers are grown here in the summer, and lettuce or spinach in the winter. Sixty of the greenhouses are owned by an individual who I’m told makes about 200 million won (US$171,332) a year. That profit is produced by the migrant workers on his farm, who work from 6 am until 6 pm, with barely a moment to stretch their aching backs.

The migrant workers on the farm are subject to quasi-servitude. When workers arrive in the country, they’re divvied up between the agriculture and manufacturing sectors: those with a lower Korean language score are sent to the farm, and those with a higher score are sent to the factory. On the farm, migrant workers have to show up for work whenever the boss needs them, even on the weekends. When they finish early in the slack season, the boss sometimes springs extra work on them, such as getting the greenhouses ready for cold weather.

Migrant workers don’t dare defy their boss’s orders, even when they’re unfair. Their nonprofessional work visas have a default period of three years, which can be extended for a year and 10 months. If they want to come back to Korea, they have to pass a special Korean language test and be recognized as “diligent workers.” That recognition is only available to workers who have stayed at the same workplace for their entire sojourn. When migrant workers are seeking another stay in the country, their boss’s word is all that counts.

Many labor laws don’t apply to Agro-livestock workers

Peukka and her coworkers each make 1.7 million won (US$1,457) a month, though the owner of the farm deducts a monthly 250,000 won (US$214.24) in rent for their “dormitory.” As of July 2019, resident aliens are required to enroll in the national health insurance program, which, for the Cambodians, means paying a monthly premium of 112,850 won (US$96.71). As of last year, Koreans working 40 hours a week for the minimum wage were pulling in 1,745,000 won (US$1,495) a month. Since these Cambodians are working for 11-12 hours a day and six days a week, they ought to be making much more, but they occupy a legal loophole. When it comes to agro-livestock workers, Korea’s Labor Standards Act exempts farmers from the typical requirements for work hours, break time, and days off – almost as if they were being punished for getting a low score on the Korean language test.

“All the vegetables that are served on our table come from the hands of migrant workers. In rural areas of Gyeonggi Province, the only people you see on Sunday are migrant workers. Most of them come here to work when they’re full of youth and energy, in their twenties 20s and 30s, only to be replaced, like a used-up battery, after less than five years,” said Kim Dal-seong, a pastor involved in helping migrant workers.

According to the Ministry of Justice, there were some 28,000 migrant laborers like Peukka employed on Korean farms in 2018.
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